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The 2018 Coffee Price Crisis: Market Fundamentals and the Human Cost

coffee tree price collapse

[Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series by Jos Algra on the causes and effects of the coffee’s current price crisis. Part two will go into much more detail about the relationship of the New York C price to specialty coffee roasters.]

September 20, 2018, marked an important day in the world of coffee, when the New York C price for washed Arabica coffee fell below 100 cents per pound, reaching its lowest level in 12 years.

The current rally to the bottom started on the Nov. 8, 2016 — coincidentally, another historic day, as Donald Trump was elected president of the United States — when the “C price” was around 180 cents per pound. Since that time, we have seen 22 months of price drops. We can’t predict the market, but we’re all wondering what will happen next: 93.5 cents? 84.5? 70? 

Why has the coffee price fallen so low?

There is a bumper crop in Brazil of more than 60 million bags; Vietnam may end up with more than 30 million bags; and global output in the 2018/19 season may be over 170 million bags, which is 10 million more than consumption.

However, these fluctuations have been on the market’s radar for a long time, as the next harvest in Brazil will be lower, possibly by 10 to 15 percent, and some five million bags may be held back for next harvest. In short, supply and demand over these next two seasons is expected to be more or less in balance.

To understand the price collapse, we must look at the short term, where it is the funds that determine the price. In 2017, more than 9.4 million coffee contracts were traded on the New York futures market alone — equivalent to 2.7 billion bags of coffee, 16 to 17 times as much as global annual output. The futures markets outweigh supply and demand on the physical market in price setting.

On the Aug. 21, 2018, large speculators had a net short position — meaning to bet on a lower future price — of more than 106,000 contracts, or the equivalent of 30.1 million bags. With the 5.5 million bags short in London, that represented more than 20 percent of annual coffee production. On Nov. 8, 2016, when the steady downward slide began, the funds were almost 59 thousand contracts long, betting on a price increase.

How a price collapse affects farmers

The C price has not yet reached the level of 40 to 50 cents, like it did in the two most recent price crises (1989-1994 and 2000-2005), but costs have increased and currencies have devaluated. Adjusted for inflation, 100 cents now is near the same as 50 cents back then. Governments of producer countries — including Brazil, Colombia and Honduras — are protesting against the perversion of the coffee market, and discussing drastic measures to support their farmers.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the market will react. since the end of the ICO price regulation in 1989, all attempts to stop price crises on a global scale found little to no success. 

Specialty coffee roasters may claim that they pay a good price, far above the New York C market, but that’s just a small volume. Not all coffee is grown at the top of high mountains and most washed Arabica is sold against the C price (more on this in the next column). Fairtrade offers a bottom price for the coffee of $1.60 USD per pound for conventional washed Arabica ($1.90 for organic), but that, too, is a limited volume, and certified farmers only sell a third of their production as Fairtrade. Other certification schemes that don’t address the issue of base price, like Rainforest and UTZ, are challenged to make sustainability claims. 

In the two other major price crises over the past 30 years, prices held below 100 cents for five to seven years. What we’ve seen when that happens is farmers first cutting back on inputs, pesticides and other farm-related expenses. From there, the next step is often to cut back on education or other family expenses before, eventually cutting back on necessities such as food. The only other option beyond that is to abandon the farm altogether.

So what does the price drop mean for farmers? I still have the image, burnt into my retinas, of seven poor coffee farmers who died in the Arizona desert in 2001, driven from their farm and their country by the low coffee prices.



Paul Katzeff

For over 30 years members of the now defunct SCAA discussed what to do about low coffee prices. At every Annual Meeting there was a panel discussion with industry experts. They wanted to tackle the issue of low pricing with talk , talk and more talk.
How can we expect higher prices if it is the Demand Side (Buyers) who are the power in the Coffee Trade. Only if the Producing Countries organize again, will the fundamentals reign over the Technicals. This is because there is allot of room in pricing on the upside because demand will remain stable until the price reaches $25.00 per roasted Specialty coffee per pound( $19.00 for commodity coffee).
It is time for origin governments to stand up for their people. Until they do, we will continue to take advantage of the low pricing in the short run because there is big money to be made by Roasters in this situation. We need another ICO and a quota system that is set to raise the price to $6.00 per pound green. That would translate into a retail price of $15.00 per Commercial grade and $25.00 for Specialty grade.
I think the curse is elastic at $6.00 green .
The advantages are many;
1. Children will stay on the farm
2. A strong middle class will be developed in producing Countries
3. Less US foreign aid will be necessary as coffee consumers pay up for their luxury.
4. The benefit of more money in the rural villages comes down to clean water, education for the kids, and healthier living conditions .
5. Great coffee results when a coffee farmer loves his/her trees. But love of coffee trees comes fastest when those trees provide food, clothing , shelter, health care and education for their family and community. Love of the trees is what makes special coffee quality. Improvements happen at every altitude . Love is a powerful tool. A higher price will make us all brothers and sisters in Coffee . I don’t believe the collaboration and concentration of power on the consumer demand side as seen in the merger of The SCAA and The SCAE into the SCA was the path to higher prices, in fact, it was a signal that the downward pressure on price would be supported by an all powerful demand side conglomerate . There is allot of shame to go around and we will be in this mess until we either kill the industry or change our attitudes

Sylvain Harerimana

Thanks Paul for your good comment; I think this Coffee price crisis shall continue till African coffee farmers uproot their coffee bushes and go for Banana and Avocado!

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